Gerhard Roth: Der Strom

Like the preceding volumes in the Orkus series – of which this is the fourth – Der Strom follows the pattern of a crime novel, although this time I found myself unable to identify a specific subgenre it would belong to. On the other hand, I think none of the previous installments made it quite as clear why Gerhard Roth is so attracted to the structures of crime fiction – it is the aspect of attempting to make sense of the world, to decipher the signals it sends us and to read their hidden messages. And like his protagonists, Roth appears convinced that there is a meaning to unravel, but unlike them he is well aware that its significance is ultimately undecipherable. This is where Roth and conventional crime fiction part ways, for the latter tends to move towards a solution, a final revelation of mysteries, while Roth’s novels usually end in confusion, the mysteries unsolved, the codes unbroken, any meaning opaque.

No other character in the Orkus series so far has been aware as the protagonist of Der Strom, Thomas Mach (who, as far as I can tell, is always referred to with both first and last name together) – but he also is the one who is most obviously not quite sane, as he lets himself be guided by an “Inner Voice” which only he can hear. Unsurprisingly, that voice is more often than not at odds with that is happening around Mach, leading to some very comical results, and making this the funniest novel in the series since the satire on the medical profession in Der See. Gerhard Roth does not even shy away from slapstick humour here, and it can be considered programmatic when he mentions that his protagonist (who coloured his hair red on the advice of his inner voice) looks like Stan Laurel.

Thomas Mach is another of the Austrians abroad that populate this series, younger son of a family that grew rich with the manufacture of paper and was somewhat involved with the Third Reich – while the family has distanced itself from its unsavoury beginnings, the columns of smoke that appear as recurring motif throughout the novel keep it present in the mind of the reader. (There is a lost of smoke in this novel, as well as dust, smell, and other things that fill the air and tine perception in various ways.) Mach travels to Egypt to take over a job for an uncle of his who owns a travel agency – his predecessor had committed suicide, and our protagonist comes into possession of her notebooks which, among fragments from guides and history books with her comments also contain some mysterious writing, done in red and with foreign characters. It does not take Mach long to find out that she was involved in some very shady business dealings, and from there it is just a small step to wondering whether her death really was a suicide…

… and off we go into another mock-crime-fiction plot where the protagonist, led by the voice in his head, shambles through events he does not comprehend, among people whose language he does not understand, surrounded by writing he can not read. Indeed, it is very noticeable in Der Strom how writing pops up literally everywhere Thomas Mach goes and looks. This might not be any different in his native Austria, but by virtue of its very incomprehensibility it is considerably more eye-catching, promising a meaning which it at the same time holds back, and thus making for a striking image of one of the novel’s central concerns. That is underlined by the strange fact that most of the writing appears in red, thus marking it part of a very tightly organised colour scheme which adds another layer of significance to the novel.

Colour in turn evokes seeing and perception which plays an important role in Der Strom right from its brilliant first sentence, “Geblendet vom Sonnenlicht, das durch das Kabinenfenster fiel, öffnete er die Augen.” (“Blinded by the sunlight falling through the window of the cabin, he opened his eyes.”) Note the rather clever inversion here that has the as-yet unnamed protagonist open his eyes to the blinding light thus already indicating that not everything he sees might actually be there (and that motif will recur several times throughout the novel), but also designates a certain openness for new experiences – he does not close his eyes to what happens around him, and if he cannot see it’s from a surfeit of light and impressions, not from a lack of it. This is taken up again almost literally in the novel’s final sentence, “Geblendet vom Sonnenlicht, das vom Wasser reflektiert wurde, schloß er die Augen.” (“Blinded by the sunlight reflected by the water, he closed his eyes.”) – things return to normal again, the protagonist complacently shuts out what blinds him, a light that now is no longer direct but only reflected. Between those two sentences, the whole of Thomas Mach’s journey (and of the novel’s plot) unfolds.

While Mach disdains viewing himself as a tourist, feeling himself somewhat above them by trying to immerse himself in the country he visits and thus to become a traveller, he not only is working (even if only temporarily) for a tourist agency, but the reader also cannot help but noticed that everyone he meets seems to be giving him guided tours which often lead to either tourist attractions or him visiting various colourful natives, in other words his itinerary seems markedly touristic. (And his repeatedly pushing money into the hand of pretty much every native he encounters is one of the running gags of the novel.) But even as its protagonist misses most of what is happening around him, Der Strom manages to paint a very vivid and intense picture of contemporary Egypt, in Gerhard Roth’s familiar sparse and matter-of-fact prose which here again is more frequently spaced through with bursts of lyrical beauty, much more than Der Berg was in which they were mostly absent, yet retaining that novel’s extremely dense interweaving of motifs and images. And in the end I think it is this ability of charging his laconic and deadpan but always very precise prose with beauty and the promise of significance is what makes Gerhard Roth’s novels so consistently fascinating.

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